Solitude is a thing we crave. –Rick Bass, The Book of Yaak
Solitude is bliss.—quoted by many people.
Nowhere can a man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than his own soul.— Marcus Aurelius
By Dave Hood
What is solitude? It is a quiet place, away from other human beings, where we are able to reflect on our day, contemplate a decision, listen to our thoughts. We often desire solitude to escape from stress of work or toxic people or relax. We can find solitude in many places, including the privacy of a bedroom, a walk along an empty street late at night, a hike through the still woods, sitting on a bench in a peaceful, still park with the maple trees. Most of us require solitude to live a balanced life, in which we feel satisfied, experience well-being. It is a basic human need. And yet, too much solitude can lead to loneliness, which can result in despair, even death.
Solitude Versus Loneliness
From an outsider, solitude and loneliness appear the same. They are both characterized by solitariness. Yet, solitude is not loneliness. It is a positive state of being alone, but not lonely. The person is engaged with one’s own thoughts, feelings, experiences, self. For instance, deep reading, meditation, prayer require solitude. You find solitude in a quiet, still place, where you are able to contemplate or reflect about a life experience or situation. For instance, a hike in the woods alone with just your thoughts, or walk on a quiet beach, or sitting in your backyard alone with a book are often ways in which people enjoy solitude. Solitude helps people recharge their energies, clear their mind of clutter, listen to their thoughts or to the inner self. Finding and experiencing solitude is a personal choice.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is a negative state, a wistful need for someone who is gone, like a former lover, or best friend who has moved away. It is the need for human contact and social interaction. Loneliness is a sense of despair, caused by social isolation. A person whose husband or wife has died experiences the painful loneliness during the grieving process. The elderly often experience the pain of loneliness. In fact, anyone who is disconnected from the mainstream of life, such as school, work, church, family, friends feels lonely. Unlike solitude, loneliness is not something a person chooses to experience. It is imposed on them by misfortune, hardship, loss, death of a loved one.
What Psychologists Have to Say about Solitude
According to psychologists, time alone is an essential human need or requirement for living the balanced life. We need time by ourselves to escape from stress, to relax, to regain our enthusiasm. Yet, too much time alone can lead to depression. Most people are social animals and enjoy human interaction on a daily basis. They go to the coffee shop for a coffee, go shopping, take a course, play bridge, take yoga classes just to have some human contact. I’ve found that I require about 1 hour of solitude a day.
Studies have shown that many people who are depressed spend too much time by themselves—living disconnected lives in social isolation. Many elderly people have only the television as their companion. When a person loses a job, the biggest problem is overcoming the time spent alone searching for a job. A typical job searcher sits alone at home in front of the laptop, searching the Internet for work.
Most people who are lonely are socially isolated, disconnected from people, and in need of human contact. The loneliness is imposed or forced upon them like a pink slip on Friday when a person is expecting a paycheque. Often a death of a loved one leads to a painful state of loneliness. Too much loneliness is unhealthy. It drains the body of energy, depletes the mind of optimism, takes the air of out high spirit, leaves a person yearning for human contact. It can lead to depression–even suicide.
Some people feel alone in a relationship, especially when it is dysfunctional. Often an abused woman who lives with an alcoholic husband feels lonely. A man whose wife refuses to share intimacy feels lonely. A young mother with a new born baby whose husband works all day and travels on business trips a few times a month often feels alone, socially isolated, cut off from human contact. When I was unhappily married, my ex-wife and I lived like roommates in the house, and then worked and enjoyed leisure time apart. I was married but felt alone and discontented.
We can be alone in a crowd. As a teenager, I would often attend parties in which other guys had girlfriends. Others would be dancing, talking, laughing—and I’d be standing in the background people watching. The experience reminded me of the fact that I didn’t have a girlfriend, and that I was yearning for one. People who are lonely, discontented, socially isolated feel it more when they are shopping in a crowded mall, attending a baseball game at the crowded stadium, buying a ticket to see a film at the crowded movie theatre.
I learned that living alone was socially isolating.When I split up from my ex-wife, I lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment for two years. I called my pad “the cave.” I felt cut off from civilization. I would ride the elevator by myself, walk down the hall alone, shut my door to the apartment, and not see a soul. For the two years, I never met any of my neighbours. Clearly, my life had too much solitude. The experience made me melancholy. So, I moved away and rented a place where others lived.
Solitude As Inspiration
The famous cubist artist, Pablo Picasso once said:“Without great solitude no serious work is possible.” Writers, photographers, painters, film makers have commented on solitude through their art.
Much has been written about solitude. For instance, American writer, Henri David Thoreau, discovered this and captured his thoughts, feelings and life situation in “Walden”, a book about his spiritual self-discovery while living in seclusion in a cabin on Walden Pond.
Writer Ray Robertson has written “Why Not: Fifteen Reasons to Live” on what makes life worth living, meditative essays that explore why what makes us happy in life. In one of the essays, he writes defines the meaning of solitude and describes some of the benefits of “solitude.” For instance, to write, he requires a quiet space. To live a balanced life, he requires time away from other people. He writes “too long in the company of others and it feels that my soul’s oxygen supply has been siphoned off.”
Solitude is a common theme in photography. Photographers have used many things to represent the pleasure of solitude, such as a solitary walk in the woods, sitting alone on the beach; watching the sea or lake, contemplating; sitting on a bench alone, peering into the distance.
The silence and stillness of solitude is represented in many artist’s paintings. Many of the paintings by the Group of Seven, the most famous and popular Canadian painters, where landscape painting that embodied solitude. For instance, Canadian painter Tom Thompson painted “Jack Pine”, which captures the beauty of solitude in the Canadian North.
The art of Roy Henry Vickers, a popular Canadian Artist, often depicts the beauty of solitude.
In 2007, the film “Into the Wild” was released. It was directed by Sean Penn and based on a true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who seeks adventure, freedom, and solitude. He leaves home, sells all his possessions, gives away his life savings to charity, hitch hikes to Alaska, hikes into the bush with a back pack, discovers an abandoned bus, where he sets up camp. Initially, he enjoys the adventure and solitude of the wilderness. But as time passes, the forces of nature become cruel, and he yearns for human contact and to become part of society again. At the end of the movie, he writes a final few lines his personal journal, crawls into his sleeping bag to die. A couple of weeks later, hunters find his corpse. Before dying, he realizes that “happiness is only real when shared.” Clearly, too much solitude can be harmful to the psyche and your life.
Benefits of Solitude
In “The Monk who Sold His Ferrari”, author Robin Sharma suggests that solitude is one of the Ten Rituals of Radiant Living. It is one of the rituals we must practise to become enlightened and find happiness. It involves “nothing more than ensuring that your daily schedule includes a mandatory period of peace.” It is a period of time, as little as 15 minutes each day, in which you find quiet time and silence in a place, away from distractions, to explore the healing power of silence and to come to know who you really are.
Solitude has been a friend throughout my life. As a kid, I enjoyed riding my 10 speed CCM bike along a quiet road or street or sidewalk, through a quiet park, to a silent place, where’d I stop, listen the leaves rustling, wind whispering, birds singing. As a teenager, I road from Quebec City, up the St.Lawrence to Gaspe in 21 days with the YMCA. On many days, I was alone on the rural road with my bike and my thoughts. We rode 50 miles a day, often by ourselves. To pass the time, I daydreamed or meditated about my future plans.
As an young adult, I took several canoe trips to quiet places, hiked through the woods with the canoe, camped on uninhabited island, listened to the call of the loon at night. I learned that I could find peace of mind on those canoe trips, paddling on a still, tranquil, silent lake in Algonquin Park. For more than twenty years as an adult, I found solitude through distance running. Three or four times a week, I’d run 8 or 10 km after work in the evening. Running by myself with only my thoughts enabled me to meditate, let my mind wander, contemplate my life as I ran. I’d run along the streets and sidewalks and parks on a quiet night in the neighbourhood. By the end of the run, my mind was cleared of clutter and worry.
In recent years, I discovered that walking by myself on a abandoned beach or hiking in the quiet woods is a good way to find solitude. I’ve often solved many problems while walking alone.
For several years, I relied on public transit to travel around the city of Toronto. Walking allowed me the opportunity of solitude. Even now, I enjoy strolling by myself through the snow covered streets after a night at the pub, walking home at 2 a.m. in the early morning. The solitude of a morning walk has allowed me to contemplate work, leisure, love, and much more.
I enjoy engaging in the leisure activity of reading in solitude. I cannot read when people are talking on cellphones or at the coffee shop–my mind becomes distracted, and I am unable to concentrate. So, each night, I’ll read my poetry by the likes of Charles Simic, short fiction by William Trevor, or magazine such as The New Yorker alone in my bed. I have learned that solitude provides an escape from noise, silence for the mind to think, process information, resolve problems, answer questions, meditate about the meaning and purpose of life.
I’ve discovered that solitude is necessary for creativity. Solitude is a vital ingredient for the recipe of creativity. I have learned that I write best when I am alone in my study, where there are no distractions from the television, radio, or other people talking. Before sitting down to write this essay, I took several walks in solitude and contemplated the following questions: What are the benefits of solitude? What are the drawbacks? Before writing a poem, I’ll sit in solitude and freewrite, writing down on paper whatever pops into my mind. Solitude is the spark that ignites the flame of creativity.
If I’m unable to find time for myself, I start to feel smothered by other people. I feel as though my energy is being drained. Eventually, I become frustrated and irritable. But if I’m alone too much, I start to feel the need for human contact.
I’ve discovered that I require alone time, often in the form of solitude. I often seek to be by myself in a quiet, still place to contemplate, meditate, hike in the woods, read a short story, reflect about my life. Solitude is often my best friend.
I’ve learned that solitude is sustenance for the soul and spirit. It has enabled me to clear my mind, find joy, and peace of mind. It has enabled me to recharge my engine, fill the tank with gas, renew my enthusiasm for a person, work, life. It is one of the required tools for building a satisfying life. of happiness and well-being. We all crave solitude, and the right kind of solitude can be bliss.